Discarded plastics are ending up everywhere—even in animals’ bellies. We can turn the tide on this type of pollution.
In May 2018, an eight-month-old harp seal pup was found dead on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. That same year, a right whale washed ashore in Indonesia. Both had plastic in their bellies.
The right whale’s stomach held a large lump containing nearly 13 lbs of plastic waste. Researchers from World Wildlife Fund noted the lump included 115 plastic cups, four plastic bottles, 25 plastic bags, two flip-flops, a nylon sack, and more than 1,000 other pieces of plastic.
Veterinary pathologist Andrew Brownlow was the one who discovered the seal pup had ingested plastic. According to Brownlow, it’s rare to see intelligent creatures such as harp seals eating plastic—and this indicates how dire the plastic pollution problem has become.
It’s easy to think it’s “just one bottle” when we grab something plastic for convenience, but choices like this add up to at least 8.8 million tons of plastic entering our oceans each year. Making different choices will turn the tide and preserve our oceans. The power is in our hands … and in the reusable water bottles they hold.
How plastic is made—and where it ends up
Plastic production relies on a steady stream of crude oil, a finite resource that’s dwindling by the day. Our insatiable appetite for crude oil has resulted in a long list of damaging environmental impacts, including catastrophic oil spills, habitat disruption, and unsafe drinking water.
Plastic disposal in the form of incineration releases dangerous toxins such as dioxins into the air and groundwater. According to the World Health Organization, dioxins can cause “reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones, and also cause cancer.”
Of course, not all plastic is incinerated. According to a recent report, approximately 9 billion tons of virgin plastics have been produced globally to date. Of this, researchers estimate nearly 7 billion tons have been disposed of in the following ways:
- 9 percent recycled
- 12 percent incinerated
- 79 percent accumulated in landfills or the natural environment
Much of this waste, we can assume, is made up of single-use plastics: plastics designed to be used only once before they’re disposed of.
Recycling isn’t the answer (surprise!)
Reduce, reuse, and recycle—for years, the “three Rs” have been touted as the solution to our growing waste problem. However, overemphasis on recycling actually perpetuates the problem since it doesn’t force us to look at our consumption habits.
In other words, recycling gives us a free pass to keep purchasing new products, so long as we put the packaging in the blue bin. We’re better off focusing on the other two Rs if we really want to make a positive impact.
For example, Australia recently made headlines when the country’s two largest supermarket chains banned single-use plastic bags. In just three short months, this monumental decision prevented approximately 1.5 billion bags from entering the environment.
Earth Day provides the perfect reason to ride this changing tide and start implementing changes in our own lives. The earth’s species—from whales to seal pups—are counting on us.